Posted by: Rob Viens | August 5, 2013

A Malón on the Rio Negro

On August 5th Darwin ventured inland with John Lort Stokes, midshipmen on the Beagle. He writes:

“Rode with Mr Stokes to the town of Patagones situated about 18 miles up the river; it was a pleasant ride, the road generally lying at the foot of the sloping cliff which forms Northern bank of the great valley of the R. Negro.” (Aug 5)

On this modern map, Darwin’s “Patagones” is labeled Viedma (more on that tomorrow):

Interestingly, in a footnote in Darwin’s published diary, there is a note from his “pocket notebook” (i.e., his “field book”) where he also described several birds he observed (and shot) on the trip.  He writes:

“Rode to the town, pleasant ride—banks of river, very unpicturesque country: Indians attacked a house: ornithology different. only small Icterus; not so very tame; some pidgeons; different parrots; different partridge; BBB birds common. Rose starling, Finch with black; sparrow. One days shooting, many new birds.” (Aug 5, Darwin’s pocket notebook)

It is sort of interesting to see how an idea gets translated from (1) instant impression (pocket notebook) to (2) end of day thoughts (diary) to (3) end-of-trip, well thought out summary (Voyage of the Beagle).

In his diary, Darwin goes on to follow-up on the comment “Indians attach house” – which turns out to be based on a story he heard from a local resident. I always struggle with this aspect of Darwin’s notebook – his description of indigenous people.  It is easy to say that he was a product of his time, and that when it came to things like slavery he was more enlightened than most. But when push comes to shove, there is no way to get around the fact that his diary (and later Voyage) continue to perpetuate the view of the time that local people (indigenous, natives, “Indians”, etc.) were somehow lesser beings, less civilized, and savages. Or that their deaths were justified in light of “improvements”.  But in following the diary I must take the bad with the good, so here is the account he shares in his diary:

 “We passed the ruins of some fine Estancias, which a few years since were destroyed by the Indians. They withstood several attacks; a man present at one gave me a very lively description of what took place. — The Spaniards had sufficient notice to drive all the cattle & horses into the Corral which surrounded the house, & likewise to mount some small cannon. — The Indians were Araucanians from the South of Chili; several hundred in number & highly disciplined. — They first appeared in two bodies on a neighbouring hills; having there dismounted & taken off their fur mantles, they advanced naked to the charge. — The only weapon of an Indian is a very long bamboo or Chusa ornamented with Ostrich feathers and pointed by a sharp spear head. My informer seemed to remember with the greatest horror, the quivering of these Chusas as they approached near. When close, the Cacique Pinchera, hailed the besieged to give up their arms or he would cut all their throats. — As this would probably have been the result of their entrance under any circumstances, the answer was given by a volley of musketry. The Indians with great steadiness came to the very fence of the Corral. — to their surprise they found the posts fastened together by iron nails instead of leathern thongs, & of course in vain attempted to cut them with their knives. This saved the lives of the Christians: many of the Indians were carried away by their companions, & at last one of the under Caciques being wounded the bugle sounded a retreat. They retired to their horses & seemed to hold a council of war. — This was an awful pause for the Spaniards, as all their ammunition with the exception of a few cartridges was expended. — In an instant the Indians mounted their horses & galloped out of sight.

Another attack was still shorter; a cool Frenchman managed the gun, he stopped till the Indians had approached very close & then raked their line with grape shot. He thus laid thirty nine of them on the ground. Of course such a blow immediately routed the whole party.” (Aug 5)

El Malón – A raid by the Mapuche people (who may have been living in this area in 1833) – by Johann Moritz Rugendas in 1845)

El Malon by Rugendas

What Darwin describes above may be what has been coined a malón – a raid on Spanish settlements (or other rival tribes) by the Mapuche people who inhabited this region of Argentina. This was a tactic often employed against the Spanish – basically a rapid and fierce attack intended to take the Spaniards completely off guard and instill fear. The Mapuche used this raid tactic throughout the time the Spanish occupied Argentina.

I do think that at some point in his life, Darwin begins to view all indigenous people as “human”, though I am not sure if he gets past thinking of them as “another species of human”.  Not perfect, but a step above the common view of the time, which painted indigenous people as “beasts”. A legacy we still live with in the form of racism and oppression today.

I’ll do what I can to say more about who these indigenous people were in some upcoming posts. (RJV)

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